Gallery Highlights - American Scene
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The turn of the twentieth century brought many important shifts in American art. American artists began to produce art that conveyed the spirit of the nation by focusing on scenes of everyday life including a new interest in the depiction of the urban landscape. This new movement referred to as the American Scene developed as a reaction to European Modernism and was influenced by the art and teachings of the Ashcan School headed by Robert Henri. American Scene artists grasped the democratic ideals of America and promoted subject matter that had meaning to all people – rural scenes depicted in American Regionalism and urban subjects favored by Social Realism.
Artists, musicians and writers of the early twentieth century shared a desire to embrace the freedom and individuality of American life. Music (ragtime, jazz, folk music, and the big band sound) mirrored the changes that accompanied the growth of American cities. Writers of popular literature focused on the corruption of big business, the plight of laborers and socioeconomic issues favored by Social Realist artists. In the art world, two prominent figures emerged – Robert Henri and Alfred Stieglitz. Henri, organizer of The Eight and leader of the Ashcan School, was dedicated to a realistic style of art that appealed to the masses. He felt that if society could understand its art then social change could be achieved through the artist. Stieglitz, founder of the Gallery 291 in New York City and an advocate of European Modernism, was devoted to the promotion of photography as a legitimate art form that could convey meaning through line, shape and tone rather than specific subject matter.
Robert Henri and Urban/Social Realism
While New York City was gaining prominence as a world art center, American artists continued to study in Europe – especially in France – incorporating European artistic styles into their interpretations of American subject matter. A group of urban realist painters in Philadelphia, led by Robert Henri, began to depict life in the alleys, slums and tenements of the city. Their choice of subject matter and muted palette led a critic to name them the “Ashcan School” artists. George Luks, John Sloan, William Glackens, and Everett Shinn were illustrators for the Philadelphia Press who embraced Henri’s loose, spontaneous style rather than the polished techniques taught in American art academies. Although their painting style differed from the accepted standards in art, their subject matter was even more revolutionary. Henri’s Ashcan artists were later joined by Arthur Davies, Ernest Lawson and Maurice Prendergast – a group known as “The Eight” who forged a new American art movement that emphasized the depiction of real life in art.
In 1908, Henri organized an exhibition of artwork by The Eight as a protest against the prevailing restrictive academic exhibitions. The exhibition of “The Eight” became a symbol of rebellion against the status quo in American art which eventually led to the International Exhibition of Modern Art in 1913 at the New York National Guard Armory. The exhibition included controversial art from Europe in addition to work by American artists. The scathing reviews of the show by art critics and the press caused vast numbers of people to attend the exhibition which became known as The Armory Show.
One young artist who visited The Armory Show was greatly influenced by the work he saw. Stuart Davis had been introduced to Henri during his childhood in Philadelphia where his father was the art editor of the Philadelphia Press. It was through his father and the newspaper that Davis first became aware of Henri and the Ashcan artists. Davis left high school to study with Henri in New York. Davis’s painting, Consumer Coal Company (1912), contains the aesthetic characteristics and urban realism practiced by Henri and the Ashcan School artists. The vigorous brushwork and implied lines direct attention to the workers at the center of the composition. Davis captured the feeling of a windy winter day in the city through muted colors and sweeping brushstrokes, reflecting the goals of Henri and the Ashcan artists. After attending The Armory Chow, Davis abandoned realism in favor of a style influenced by the European Fauvist and Cubist works he viewed in the exhibition. Within a year of painting Consumer Coal Company, Davis began to produce abstract compositions that communicated his perception of urban America. Theater on the Beach and Sketchbook 9-16, Barber Pole contain architectural elements that fascinated Davis through most of his career. Both compositions emphasize contour lines and shapes organized in a manner that attempts to capture the feeling of activity in the urban environment.
Literature of the early twentieth century attempted to address the social changes and “growing pains” of America. Theodore Dreiser’s 1900 novel Sister Carrie, illustrates America’s transformation from an agrarian society to an industrial nation with a ruthless political system that abused laborers. In Dreiser’s novel, the city becomes the agent of seduction and is blamed for the breakdown of the family unit and the eventual ruin of humanity. Sister Carrie chronicles the migration of a young woman from her small town home to Chicago in 1889 – an important year for American workers. By 1890 women comprised seventeen percent of the national labor force, the majority of female workers between the ages of fifteen and twenty-four. It was also in 1890 that Jacob Riis, an immigrant from Denmark, published a book of photographs titled How the Other Half Lives. It contained images of the Lower East Side tenement slums and prompted Police Commissioner Theodore Roosevelt to address the poor living conditions of workers.
Alfred Stieglitz and Abstraction
Two American photographers, Alfred Stieglitz and Edward Steichen, were advocates of photography as an art form. Prior to the Armory Show of 1913 Stieglitz’s gallery at 291 Fifth Avenue in New York City, known as Gallery 291, introduced America to abstract European art. In 1910 Stieglitz and Steichen organized The Younger American Painters exhibition, which preceded Henri’s Exhibition of Independent Artists by one month. This move by Gallery 291 deepened a growing rift between the realists and the abstractionists.1 While Henri preached that art should relate to real life and offer social commentary, Steiglitz felt that art should transcend the physical world we live in. Stieglitz believed that many contemporary artists were compromising their beliefs in order to make a living. He felt that incorporating popular culture and materialist ideas into art would degrade its role in society.
By 1913, the year of the Armory Show, abstraction had become a prominent force in American art. Critics were writing about abstract artworks and new movements in music. In addition to art and music, abstraction was appearing in poetry. William Carlos Williams was among many writers who abandoned traditional narrative for a writing style that could mirror abstract visual art. Williams was a frequent guest in Stieglitz’s circle of artists. In 1920, Williams started a small journal for the literary and visual arts called Contact which suggested that American art would find its identity through closer contact with the American people. In this way Williams related to Henri’s urban realist approach. However, the new abstraction promoted by the visual artists in Stieglitz’s group prompted Williams to change his own writing style.
In music, Charles Ives was experimenting with atmospheric and everyday sounds in compositions based on the activity of New York City. His music attempted to capture the feeling of a particular location in America by experimenting with tonality to create a “national” sound. Ives’ compositions followed the literary and philosophical traditions of Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. He sought a musical style that expressed the nature of man and his relationship to his environment. Jazz musicians incorporated aspects of abstractionism into their improvisational compositions. Jazz music influenced the work of artists such as Stuart Davis and Piet Mondrian, who captured the feeling of the rhythmic sequences of jazz music in their artwork.
American society experienced many important changes in the first decade of the twentieth century. The progressive education movement began with University of Chicago’s John Dewey who founded the first elementary school, while Italy’s Maria Montessori introduced her alternative teaching methods. In journalism, William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer engaged in a war of the press and produced a four-column, tabloid style paper in 1900. Some popular novels of the day included L. Frank Baum’s The Wonderful World of Oz and Jack London’s The Call of the Wild. It was an era of revolution in transportation as well. Henry Ford’s massive motor plants on the River Rouge in Michigan began producing an automobile that cost between $700 and $900. The Wright Brothers made their historic first flights at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, and the first cross-country automobile trips took only 52 days. Popular music reflected the changes taking place, evidenced by songs such as In My Merry Oldsmobile and Come Josephine in My Flying Machine. The nation embraced the Broadway musicals of Irving Berlin and George M. Cohan while the Ziegfeld Follies made their premiere. Scott Joplin introduced the nation to Ragtime music and Vaudeville performances were in high demand. The time was perfect for major developments within the visual arts.
The Armory Show
On February 17, 1913 New York was introduced to the art of European modernists including Marcel Duchamp and Wassily Kandinsky – two artists who are considered the first to produce non-objective paintings. The International Exhibition of Modern Art at New York’s 69th Regiment Armory was the first art exhibition organized by artists rather than art scholars and dealers. The impact of European art styles – Cubism, Fauvism, and Post-Impressionism – on the advancement of modernism in American art was unprecedented. The controversial exhibition received around 75,000 visitors during its stay in New York City and nearly 200,000 when it traveled to the Art Institute of Chicago.2 Five watercolors by a young artist, Stuart Davis, were included in the exhibition. Davis was attracted to several works by European artists in the show, particularly the work of Paul Gaugin, Henri Matisse, and Vincent Van Gogh. The form and content of the European modernists influenced Davis to change the direction of his art. During the summers of 1914-1916 Davis met Charles Demuth, who introduced him to Cubism.
For a number of years, Davis had made his paintings on the spot as he traveled with easel, paints, and canvases in search of subjects. Around 1918, he discarded these cumbersome materials in favor of a sketchbook and pen or pencil, nstituting a practice he was to follow for the rest of his life. His numerous otebooks are filled with drawings - drawings that later served as the point of d eparture for studio pictures. These multipurpose sketches were synthesized, in the artist’s words, ‘into a single focus.’3
Sketchbook 9-16, Barber Pole (c.1930-32) is an example of the first step within Davis’s new artistic process. His sketch emphasizes the relationships between lines and shapes within the composition. In addition to the influence of the European modernists, Davis was also inspired by jazz music and the streets of New York City. Davis listened to jazz while he painted and frequently attended performances of jazz musicians. Davis continued to develop the abstract style that characterized his work for the remainder of his art career. Theater on the Beach (1931) exhibits the multiple viewpoints Davis adopted in his painting. The lithograph connects views of the Parisian theater de l’Atelier and Gloucester Beach with a Picasso inspired figure. The Cubist use of collage was an important influence within Davis’s later works. These two images were completed after his 1928 trip to Paris where he stayed in the studio of fellow artist, Jan Matulka. During his visit, Davis produced several abstract images of Parisian architecture which he incorporated into Theater on the Beach. While in Paris, Davis met and worked with many European modernists including Isamu Noguchi and Alexander Calder.4
John Marin, a member of the Stieglitz circle, shared Davis’s fascination with abstraction. Marin’s characteristic sketchy, spontaneous approach to his subject matter is evident in Downtown, The El (1921). His abstraction of the bustling 1920s New York landscape communicates the energy of the city with strong diagonal lines that imply movement, rhythm and chaos. He was one of the first American artists to capture the action of people, cars, buses and trains within the static architecture of the urban environment. The activity of New York City was also expressed in Charles Ives’s early composition Central Park in the Dark (1907), in which the ambient sounds of the city create a lyrical and haunting composition.
Night Shadows (1921) by Edward Hopper takes a different view of urban living. Hopper chose to convey the isolation experienced by city dwellers instead of focusing on the energetic pace of the city. In Night Shadows a solitary figure walks along a sidewalk dwarfed by massive buildings. Large areas of shadow contrast with intense light to emphasize the stark, sterile feeling of the scene. Although Hopper’s Night Shadows predates Orson Welles’s famous film Citizen Kane (1941), it shares the films’ dark cinematic qualities. The lone figure in Night Shadows is reminiscent of film noir – a cinematic form influenced by the films of Orson Welles. Citizen Kane was extremely controversial when it was released in theaters because of the uncanny similarities between the main character, Charles Foster Kane, and the publishing magnate William Randolph Hearst. Kane was portrayed in an unflattering light, which prompted Hearst to impede the release of the film. However, the film could have been based upon any wealthy early twentieth-century financier and the corruption that accompanied their rise in society. Citizen Kane introduced a number of cinematic techniques to convey a sense of real life – unconventional lighting and use of shadows, elaborate camera movements and revealing facial close-ups. Hopper’s Night Shadows could be a still shot from Welles’s film.
Prohibition 1920 by Marguerite Thompson Zorach uses figurative abstraction to convey a sense of the disequilibrium that American society experienced during the Prohibition era. Zorach and her husband William were both influenced by the European abstract art in the Armory Show. By 1915, they were experimenting with Cubism, Fauvist color, and Expressionism. Prohibition 1920 contains many elements found in a painting by Edouard Manet called Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass). In Manet’s painting, two clothed men and a nude female figure gaze directly at the audience. The painting was controversial because the female was a known courtesan. In Zorach’s Prohibition 1920 the nude female figure is in the foreground and the two clothed men are in the background. One man wears a uniform and the other wears a business suit. The men interact with each other, ignoring the female. Zorach’s use of vibrant color in the painting is influenced by Wassily Kandinsky’s color theory based on the idea that every color corresponded to an interior, psychological sound. Zorach’s use of vibrant red in Prohibition 1920 creates a feeling of tension and energy and represents the sounds in the underground bars or “speakeasies” established during the years of prohibition.
Regionalism and the WPA
While many artists focused on subjects that communicated the energy of urban life, other artists, primarily from the Midwest, focused on rural America. They felt that the solution to many of the problems produced by urban living and The Great Depression, was for the United States to return to its agrarian roots. These Regionalist artists idealized rural life and focused on specific agrarian regions of the nation. The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl fueled the Regionalists’ goals. In 1933, Franklin D. Roosevelt initiated the Civil Works Administration, and his Harvard classmate George Biddle suggested the importance of including artists:
Biddle’s suggestion that American artists do for the social ideals of the Roosevelt administration what the Mexican muralists had done for the Mexican revolution received a ready endorsement from Roosevelt and from Edward Bruce, an artist who doubled as a lawyer for the Treasury Department.5
The suggestion led to the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). The PWAP appointed regional chairs to oversee the creation of public murals, calling the “American Scene” appropriate subject matter and typically avoiding abstraction and controversial imagery. Artists were nationally recognized and viewed as “performing a valuable service for the community.”6 After the dissolution of PWAP, the Works Project Administration (WPA) initiated the program known as Federal One.
This unprecedented period of social reform in America allowed artists to earn their living from art. Massive mural projects glorifying the history of our nation and its agrarian roots were produced by painters including John Steuart Curry and Thomas Hart Benton. Other artists, such as Ben Shahn and Dorothea Lange, documented the effects of The Great Depression and The Dust Bowl on the lives of Americans.
The struggle of daily living during the 1930s provided subject matter for artists and folk musicians. The effects of The Great Depression became a focal point for cultural artistic expression. The WPA programs gave musicians the opportunity to travel to rural areas in search of traditional regional music. Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, and “Leadbelly’ Ledbetter contributed greatly to folk music of the era. Literature began to mirror the social issues found in the lyrics of songwriters. Tragedy, loss, destruction and daily struggle prompted writers to produce works of fiction based on a fascination with communist and socialist ideals and the effect on the collective public. A “hard-boiled” style of writing, exemplified in the works of Ernest Hemingway, focused on the power of one person struggling to survive in a society impaired by deceit and weakness.
The ideals of the Regionalists found its way into music and dance as seen in Aaron Copland’s Appalachian Spring (1944), choreographed by Martha Graham. Appealing to her desire to use dance to make a social statement, Appalachian Spring expressed the vastness of the American frontier, the strength of the people and the triumph of common sense and love over fundamental Puritanism.
Another artist who worked in the Regionalist style, Carroll Cloar, drew inspiration from his rural upbringing on the Arkansas Delta. Burned Field (1956) could have originated from the vast collection of photographs Cloar often used for subject matter. In Burned Field, two men appear to be discussing the crops that will be planted in the field that has been burned to clear the brush and weeds. The strong horizontal lines of the composition give the feeling of vastness. The enhanced colors capture the lushness of rich soil and the tender corn plants already growing. The painting communicates a sense of optimism – the potential for a healthy crop and the future of the farmers who work the land. A contemporary of Cloar, George Atkinson, follows the regionalist style with his panoramic rural scenes of the American midwest.
Stevan Dohanos also focused on regional scenes of America. Dohanos was influenced by the illustrations of Norman Rockwell. Like Rockwell, Dohanos worked as an illustrator for The Saturday Evening Post. His illustrations for the Post brought him to the attention of the Postal Service Stamp Advisory Committee. Dohanos designed many postage stamps that are sought by collectors to this day. His woodcut State Fair depicts a scene common in farming communities. The composition contains strong foreground and background elements to give a sense of depth. The large cow, its owner and onlookers are placed in the middle ground while the judge is placed closer to the foreground. The coveted blue ribbon hangs from the side of a stall window in the foreground. The cycle of life is depicted through subtle symbols such as the egg on the stall window sill and the rising sun in the distance. The optimism expressed in Carroll Cloar’s Burned Field is also evident in Dohanos’ State Fair.
Social commentary was the focus of Jacob Lawrence and Ben Shahn in their art. Both artists communicated issues of concern for people living in both rural and urban areas – equality, opportunity and acceptance. Lawrence, associated with the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, based his work on his life experiences as an African American. His art presents social and economic problems in the context of historical narrative. The paintings and prints that comprise his Migration of the Negro, Frederick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman Series display his ability to express contemporary concerns through the depiction of a historical event. His eight-color serigraph The 1920s . . . The Migrants Arrive and Cast Their Ballots (1974), from the Migration series, depicts a scene from the post World War I era when African Americans left the oppression of the rural south for northern cities where jobs and the opportunity to vote existed. Lawrence abstracts the image to emphasize color and shape in the composition. Parts of figures blend into the wood floor. A restricted palette of brown, gold, red and blue add unity to the composition. White and gray are used sparingly to accent areas and emphasize the levers of the voting booth.
Social realist artist, Ben Shahn, also drew attention to issues of social inequality through his paintings and prints. His color lithograph Seward Park (1936) captures the feeling of despair in America during The Great Depression. Unemployed men, like those depicted in Seward Park, often gathered on street corners and park benches where they shared tales of their misfortune. Shahn communicates the somber mood through muted colors. The cramped compositional framing of the men conveys a sense of being trapped. Another artist, William Scott, presents scenes of rural poverty in his pastel drawing, Miner’s Family. Scott utilizes the power of color to convey the bleak environment of the family. The sculptural forms of the gray hills dominate the composition.
The Fourteenth Street School –Urbanity Revisited
While the Regionalist artists focused on rural subject matter, artists residing in cities began to look at their changing environment in terms of gender roles and consumerism. The Fourteenth Street School included New York artists Isabel Bishop, Raphael Soyer and Reginald Marsh. Named for the Fourteenth Street/Union Square section of the city where their studios were located, the group was influenced in terms of style and subject matter by Kenneth Hayes Miller, an instructor at New York’s Art Students League. Miller emphasized an understanding of form and design inspired by the figurative art of the Renaissance and Baroque. The Fourteenth School artists focused on the human figure which they portrayed with realism and at times idealized. The female figure was the main subject in the art of Bishop, Marsh and Soyer. Office workers and shoppers on the streets of New York became the “modern woman” in their imagery. Reginald Marsh captured a sense of movement and energy in the two-panel City Girl, 1951- Girl Walking, 1952. Subtle color and expressive lines describe the curves of each classically drawn female figure and their movements. They look more like fashion plates than real people and seem to be caricatures of the working “modern” woman. City Girl and Girl Walking appear to be quick studies, possibly preliminary studies for figures in more complex compositions. They bear Marsh’s characteristic style of depicting the female figure. Marsh favored the darker side of urban life. This style melded his academic, figurative training with the ideas set by Henri and The Ashcan School. He was a great admirer of the figurative works of Peter Paul Rubens and Eugène Delacroix. Marsh often walked along the sidewalks of the city, observing people and making sketches.
Isabel Bishop’s female figures are more realistic. Bishop emphasized the interaction between two female workers in Office Girls (1938). Bishop began to work in her Fourteenth Street studio in 1926 at age 24. The etching Office Girls is typical of Bishop’s figurative groups. The mirror positioning of their legs from hip to feet conveys a sense of camaraderie between the two women. Bishop was classically trained, and was influenced by the art of Rubens and Renoir in addition to her studies with Miller. She also found inspiration from the literary world, including the works of Goethe and Henry James. The following quote from Henry James hung on her Fourteenth Street studio wall:
We walk in the dark.
We do what we can- we give what we have.
Our doubt is our passion, and our passion our task.
The rest is the madness of art.7
Raphael, Moses, and Isaac – the Soyer brothers – brought attention to the suffering of ordinary people through their art. The Soyers “specialized in figures that were psychologically isolated, melancholy, and bored.”8 Raphael Soyer was influenced by the art of several artists from Rembrandt to Kokocshka to Hopper. Soyer’s mixture of realism in subject matter and abstraction in form distinguishes Soyer from his contemporaries. His choice of the lithographic process also enhanced his ability to create a spontaneous, sketched feeling within his prints. Raphael Soyer’s R.R. Waiting Room (1954) and Woman in Red Stockings (1979) exhibit this tendency toward melancholy figures reminiscent of the nineteenth century French painters Honoré Daumier and François Millet. R.R. Waiting Room is particularly evocative of Daumier’s Third Class Carriage (1862). Both works possess the sense of being alone in a crowd. While Woman in Red Stockings is obviously indebted to the imagery of Edgar Degas, Soyer imbues the female figure with distinct individuality:
How many other American artists have done so many versions of female models, or done them so convincingly. What is American in Soyer’s treatment is the fact that they are never idealized or generalized. He treats them as individuals while never losing sight of their desirability as women.9
In Kathleen (Putting Out a Cigarette) Soyer emphasized the mood of the subject by compressing her figure within a stark compositional space. The dark, somber colors indicate the dreary environment in which the woman exists. Her confrontational gaze conveys strength and endurance despite her bleak circumstances.
While the American Scene movement was supplanted by progressive styles of Modernism and the impact of mass media in the 1950s, several artists have returned to Regionalist and Social Realist roots. Artists like Sidney Goodman and Steven Assael have adopted the ideas of Social Realism in their art. Their willingness to reveal the seedy side of American life continues to address the ideals set forth by their predecessors. Views of small town America, as seen in the work of Barry Vance, celebrate the beauty and simple lifestyle that still exists in areas of our nation. All of these artists continue to focus on the purpose of the American Scene – to produce art that is distinctly American.
- Barbara Haskell, The American Century, 94.
- Artists in the show included Goya, Delacroix, Daumier, Courbet, Manet, VanGogh, Gaugin, Cézanne, Matisse, Seurat, Picasso, Braque, Rodin, and Brancusi, while American painting of all types dominated the numbers. H.H. Arnason, History of Modern Art: Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, Photography, (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1998), 418.
- Diane Kelder, “Introduction” in Stuart Davis, 6.
- Lowey S. Sims, Stuart Davis American Painter, 197.
- In December 1933, through the efforts of Bruce, over one million dollars of the CWA’s money was used to for the Public Works of Art Project (PWAP). Barbara Haskell, 216.
- Quote from Henry James in Susan Teller, 6.
- Barbara Haskell, 261.
- Jacob Kainen, “Forward” in Raphael Soyer: Fifty Years of Printmaking 1917-1967, (New York: Da Capo Press, 1978), vii-viii.